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Principal wins award for creating inclusive school environment

'I'm just part of a really great team here at St. Bernard's and there are a lot of other staff members that could be recognized for this,' St. Bernard's principal Leah Smith

A local educator has been recognized for her efforts in making St. Bernard’s Catholic School an inclusive and welcoming space.

Principal Leah Smith was recently given the Empower Simcoe Inclusion Excellence Award, which annually recognizes educators and students who promote an inclusive school environment.

An Orillia native, Smith has been an educator with the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB) for 23 years and has worked at St. Bernard’s elementary school for the past five.

Some of the work she has done recently includes setting up a student support space to help with students’ challenges and intellectual needs, which may be accessed on an as-needed basis by all students.

“Students are able to access the student support centre when they need to. They can come down and do work in this space,” Smith told OrilliaMatters. “We also have sensory activities in there so that they can use the space, if they just need a quiet space to go during the day.” 

The support room is staffed with a special education teacher and educational assistants, and also includes a games room with board games and foosball.

Smith said that one of the most important aspects of the space is giving every student a place to go when they feel they need privacy.

“I wanted to make sure that all students were able to maintain their dignity, that they had a place to go that was private, and that they were able to just have privacy when they needed some time,” Smith said. “I found that sometimes, prior to that, students didn't have a space to go.

“We needed to create safe, caring, positive, private spaces for students to be able to go throughout the day, and that's what we came up with here at St. Bernard's," she added. 

In her time at the school, Smith has also helped to set up a ‘Zen zone’ for students, and even instituted a buddy system for an injured student so she didn't need to take the elevator alone.

“I (had a student with) a broken ankle and I just wouldn't have her ride the elevator alone,” she said. “That is not something that's like an actual program that I have in place; (it’s just) instinct for me to say, ‘Oh, make sure you have a friend that's riding with you to help you carry your books.'

“We also have another area called the Zen zone, which is filled with opportunities for students to just really deescalate,” Smith added. “(It’s) a place where they can go to self-regulate and really just take a breath and relax from some of the stress and the excitement of the day.”

The school also highlights students who were ‘caught’ doing kind things over the announcements.

“Especially now, it’s very commonplace for people to catch people doing things wrong, and we're always criticizing people,” Smith said. “But at St. Bernard's, we catch people at their best, and we are watching people do things that are good … so if you catch someone doing their best, then we make sure to highlight it over the announcements.”

At the heart of the school, and her own work, is a philosophy focused on helping others and making them feel included, Smith said.

“I really love St. Bernard's” she said. “I relied on a lot of people to help me (growing up) and I feel like if I can give back and help other students, then that's what I'm called to do, and I hope that I can help others.

“We have a small population that the staff know very well, and it's very common for staff to walk around and know every student by name,” Smith said. That really helps with making students feel really included, and that's the goal here — we want all students to feel included.”

Although her name is on the award, Smith said the work being done at St. Bernard’s is truly a team effort.

“I'm just part of a really great team here at St. Bernard's and there are a lot of other staff members that could be recognized for this,” Smith said. “The decisions we're having to make in school these days are really challenging and not easy, so to be recognized is really, really humbling and a complete honour. I feel truly blessed.”

Smith is one of six educators from SMCDSB to receive a 2022 Inclusion Excellence Award.

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Greg McGrath-Goudie

About the Author: Greg McGrath-Goudie

Greg has been with Village Media since 2021, where he has worked as an LJI reporter for CollingwoodToday, and now as a city hall/general assignment reporter for OrilliaMatters
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